Business slows when no snow falls in Tahoe

LAKE TAHOE - They say there's no business like snow business at Lake Tahoe - and that's not just for ski areas.

With this month possibly going out as one of the driest Januarys, South Shore businesses from plow drivers to snowblower repair have found other ways to make a living.

Aramark - which runs Zephyr Cove Resort - suspended snowmobiling operations out of Spooner Summit last Tuesday because of the lack of snow and icy conditions.

"We had safety issues," spokeswoman Carol Chaplin said.

Aramark's Tahoe operation has shifted their staff to other duties. A snowmobile driver may be behind the wheel of a bus, while a paddlewheeler manager has been assigned to a convention in Seattle - where snow is more plentiful.

"My problem is we're hearing no snow in the forecast. At least the nature of our business is that we have diverse products that may save us," Chaplin said, citing the boat tours and other activities.

And Aramark's snowmobiling suspension has benefited the concessionaire's counterpart in Meyers. Lake Tahoe Adventures is picking up the slack because its Hope Valley area routes have retained the snow longer do to how the sun hits the terrain.

Still, co-owner Tina Makinen said her company has already started running the buggy tours in the Carson Valley. They usual begin in April, but some enthusiasts have asked for alternatives to snow activities.

"We've been very fortunate. We're busier because Aramark's not operating, and the sand buggies are going because there's (hardly any) snow," she said.

Many private plow drivers expressed relief they have other lines of work because they realize the fickle nature of Tahoe weather.

Donna and Dale Rise have been splitting their time between selling a gourmet dog food and cleaning houses at Kirkwood, she said. The diversified couple also run a contracting business beyond snow removal.

"There's such fluctuations in the time of year in the work available," she said.

Chuck Segers of D&L Paving knows the drill.

"It's a tough year. If there's one thing I've learned, I never depend on snow for my income," he said. When times are good, Segers said, he juggles 30 commercial accounts including Safeway's parking lot. He estimated netting one tenth the business of usual Januarys.

"I've plowed every day on some Januarys," said Segers, who's lived in Tahoe for 46 years.

Bob Child of Get My Drift Snow Removal is grateful for his job as a Tahoe Douglas firefighter in times like these, while his son Justin works at Lake Valley Fire Department.

The on-and-off snow is one reason Child's father-son business establishes accounts in which clients are charged for the season. The average driveway runs $500.

Child counted 22 plow trips last year. This season has only netted seven for him.

"If we didn't have another income, I don't know how we'd buy equipment in years like this," said Child, who's invested about $50,000 in snow removal equipment. "This is the worst I've seen it in 35 years."

Business owners who fix the equipment are nervous.

Rich's Small Engines has caught up on and cleared out its snowblowers up for repair, an unusual sight for January. Instead, generators, compressors and chain saws are getting the attention - the latter especially with the high winds sending tree trimmers out in great numbers.

"We're trying to get by," co-owner Rita Sexton said. "I see the ground, and last year I didn't see that until May. If it stays like this, we'll be fixing lawn mowers."

Some cross-country ski operators are concerned, too. Max Jones, who runs Spooner Lake Cross Country Ski Area, said the trails around the meadow and lake are open. But his concern lies with people's attitudes.

"You can't combat that," Jones said. He added that he hasn't gotten to the point to having to lay people off.

"Can we just have a Miracle March?" asked Joyce Coker, who runs the Hope Valley Outdoor Center.

Coker was referring to March 1991, when Tahoe experienced 6.43 inches of precipitation through March. The level of rainfall is more than 150 percent of the mean at 4.06 inches. The wettest March registered in 1995 with 19.58 inches of rainfall.

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